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11/01/2006

Mother and Child

Last week’s sleepy column was posted before I was off with my
wife’s theater group to see “The Drowsy Chaperone” on
Broadway. As I predicted, I was not the least bit drowsy during
the performance. For you TV watchers, the cast included
Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert. Engel was Georgette in
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Robert’s mother-in-law
(Amy’s mother) on “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Hibbert was
Gil Chesterton, a character on “Frasier”. “Chaperone” was full
of outrageous overacting, songs with utterly stupid lyrics and a
ridiculous plot. Not only that, but the real star of the show was
Bob Martin, who played “Man in chair”, not even a member of
the cast of the play. Pitifully, one of the more humorous
moments in the play was Martin standing in front of the curtain
at intermission simply eating a power bar!

It was hilarious and I haven’t laughed so much since “Spamalot”,
to which “Chaperone” bears a strong resemblance in the quirky
nature of the humor. Bob Martin co-wrote the book for the
show, for which he won a Tony, and was nominated for a Tony
for his role in the chair. I do have a warning for anyone fortunate
enough to attend the play on Broadway or elsewhere. Despite
what I said in the above paragraph, there is no intermission and
I’d advise visiting the restroom prior to taking your seat. Hearty
laughter can sometimes lead to unexpected consequences.

Except for the man in the chair, who was quite in the present, the
play was set in 1928. Last week in the Star-Ledger, I saw a news
item saying that we in the U.S. will be getting a visit from
someone of considerably earlier vintage. Yes, Lucy is coming
here from Ethiopia but will not appear at the Smithsonian, which
is apparently not too happy about the visit. The Smithsonian
thinks that it’s much too dangerous for Lucy to travel and that
she should stay home in Ethiopia. At over 3 million years of age,
I can see the point. Not only that, but there’s been a lot of media
attention given to the fact that “Lucy’s Baby” has been found; at
least that’s what some of the headlines stated. Shouldn’t Lucy
stay home with her child?

OK, let’s get serious. Lucy created quite a stir back in 1974
when her fossil remains were found and it was determined that
she walked upright on two feet and, at 3.2 million years, was one
of our earliest human ancestors. At 3.3 million years, Lucy’s
“baby” is believed actually to predate Lucy and was about three
years old when she died. Lucy’s baby is now being called the
earliest child and the fossil remains are truly remarkable. For
example, virtually the whole skull has been recovered intact.
With a complete skull and knowledgeable artists, you have a
face.

The November issue of National Geographic features the face of
the cute little tyke on its cover and an article by Christopher
Sloan tells of the discovery of the child’s fossil and its
significance. It was December 10, 2000 when Zeresenay
Alemseged, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist based at the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and
his team were searching for fossils in the Dikika region in
Ethiopia, only a few miles from the site where Lucy’s remains
were found. Team member Tilahun Gebreselassie spotted the
child’s tiny skull, about the size of a monkey’s, facing out on a
dusty slope. Not only that, but there was an abundance of other
skeletal remains embedded in the sandstone under the protruding
skull. So far, it has taken Zeresenay and his team five years with
dental drill and cleaning to tease out the tiny bones grain by grain
from the sandstone!

To appreciate the magnitude of this discovery, you have to look
at the imputed (hypothetical) skeletons of Lucy, a male of the
same species (Australopithecus afarensis) and our Dikika baby.
The Geographic article shows the hypothetical skeletons of Lucy,
her “baby” and a male of the same species, highlighting those
bones that were actually found. With the male, known as AL-
444-2, there were only parts of his skull - parts of his jawbone,
teeth and parts of the upper skull. With Lucy, there was much
more, a couple of leg bones, parts of hip and spine bones, some
partial ribs, a third of a finger and a bit of a collarbone. Lucy
also had a jawbone but no teeth or other parts of the skull except
for a few patches from the top of the skull.

On the other hand, the Dikika baby’s skull is so complete that a
CT scan shows molars that had not yet erupted; hence the
estimate of about three years for its age. Inside the skull was a
sandstone cast of her brain. Its volume of 330 cc was about the
same as that of a 3-year-old chimpanzee. (Our human adult
brain volumes are in the 1050-1150 cc range.) The Dikika baby
fossil also includes a nearly complete set of ribs and shoulder
bones, a couple of complete fingers and parts of the spine as well
as leg bones and a nearly complete foot.

Even after five years, Zeresenay and his team aren’t finished yet.
They’re still carefully chipping or drilling away the sandstone
and are eagerly awaiting the exposure of a big toe. So far,
Dikika baby looks very much as we do from the waist down but
more like a gorilla from the waist up. Its arms and fingers may
still have maintained the tree climbing ability of its primate
relatives. Some experts believe that Lucy and her A. afarensis
compatriots spent some time in trees in addition to walking on
the ground. The big toe is important because chimps and gorillas
have opposable big toes permitting them to grasp things
(branches, for example). Somewhere along the line, we humans
lost our opposable toes and as you well know grasping things
with our toes is not easy.

More important from a mother’s standpoint, a baby with
opposable toes could use them to grab on to the mother while she
went about looking for food or when she had to move quickly to
avoid predators or combative colleagues. Without the opposable
toe, the babies had a difficult time hanging on and mothers had to
carry their babies. As a result, the mothers were no longer as
free to forage and probably became more dependent on others,
possibly their mates, for food and protection. There’s also
speculation that language may have evolved when a mother had
to set her baby down and then try to calm the screaming baby
with some soothing sounds. If this speculation happens to be
true, something we’ll most likely never know, then language
might have evolved as a result of a change in the big toe!

Along these lines, the Dikika baby’s fossil includes a bone that
has rarely been found in other fossils. The bone, known as the
hyoid, anchors throat muscles and is an important bone when it
comes to speech. Who knows, maybe Lucy had her own real
baby and crooned it to sleep with a primitive lullaby?

Which brings me back to the drowsy play and something my
wife and I tried that we’ve never done before – take doggy bags
from lunch into the theater (Wednesday matinee). We proved
that you could take medium-rare steak kabob and less rare calf’s
liver from Broadway Joe’s (nominally Joe Namath’s restaurant)
and eat them the next day with no apparent ill effects. Where
else but on stocksandnews.com can you get a theater review, a
bit of paleontology and a culinary tip in the same column?

Allen F. Bortrum



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-11/01/2006-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/01/2006

Mother and Child

Last week’s sleepy column was posted before I was off with my
wife’s theater group to see “The Drowsy Chaperone” on
Broadway. As I predicted, I was not the least bit drowsy during
the performance. For you TV watchers, the cast included
Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert. Engel was Georgette in
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Robert’s mother-in-law
(Amy’s mother) on “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Hibbert was
Gil Chesterton, a character on “Frasier”. “Chaperone” was full
of outrageous overacting, songs with utterly stupid lyrics and a
ridiculous plot. Not only that, but the real star of the show was
Bob Martin, who played “Man in chair”, not even a member of
the cast of the play. Pitifully, one of the more humorous
moments in the play was Martin standing in front of the curtain
at intermission simply eating a power bar!

It was hilarious and I haven’t laughed so much since “Spamalot”,
to which “Chaperone” bears a strong resemblance in the quirky
nature of the humor. Bob Martin co-wrote the book for the
show, for which he won a Tony, and was nominated for a Tony
for his role in the chair. I do have a warning for anyone fortunate
enough to attend the play on Broadway or elsewhere. Despite
what I said in the above paragraph, there is no intermission and
I’d advise visiting the restroom prior to taking your seat. Hearty
laughter can sometimes lead to unexpected consequences.

Except for the man in the chair, who was quite in the present, the
play was set in 1928. Last week in the Star-Ledger, I saw a news
item saying that we in the U.S. will be getting a visit from
someone of considerably earlier vintage. Yes, Lucy is coming
here from Ethiopia but will not appear at the Smithsonian, which
is apparently not too happy about the visit. The Smithsonian
thinks that it’s much too dangerous for Lucy to travel and that
she should stay home in Ethiopia. At over 3 million years of age,
I can see the point. Not only that, but there’s been a lot of media
attention given to the fact that “Lucy’s Baby” has been found; at
least that’s what some of the headlines stated. Shouldn’t Lucy
stay home with her child?

OK, let’s get serious. Lucy created quite a stir back in 1974
when her fossil remains were found and it was determined that
she walked upright on two feet and, at 3.2 million years, was one
of our earliest human ancestors. At 3.3 million years, Lucy’s
“baby” is believed actually to predate Lucy and was about three
years old when she died. Lucy’s baby is now being called the
earliest child and the fossil remains are truly remarkable. For
example, virtually the whole skull has been recovered intact.
With a complete skull and knowledgeable artists, you have a
face.

The November issue of National Geographic features the face of
the cute little tyke on its cover and an article by Christopher
Sloan tells of the discovery of the child’s fossil and its
significance. It was December 10, 2000 when Zeresenay
Alemseged, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist based at the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and
his team were searching for fossils in the Dikika region in
Ethiopia, only a few miles from the site where Lucy’s remains
were found. Team member Tilahun Gebreselassie spotted the
child’s tiny skull, about the size of a monkey’s, facing out on a
dusty slope. Not only that, but there was an abundance of other
skeletal remains embedded in the sandstone under the protruding
skull. So far, it has taken Zeresenay and his team five years with
dental drill and cleaning to tease out the tiny bones grain by grain
from the sandstone!

To appreciate the magnitude of this discovery, you have to look
at the imputed (hypothetical) skeletons of Lucy, a male of the
same species (Australopithecus afarensis) and our Dikika baby.
The Geographic article shows the hypothetical skeletons of Lucy,
her “baby” and a male of the same species, highlighting those
bones that were actually found. With the male, known as AL-
444-2, there were only parts of his skull - parts of his jawbone,
teeth and parts of the upper skull. With Lucy, there was much
more, a couple of leg bones, parts of hip and spine bones, some
partial ribs, a third of a finger and a bit of a collarbone. Lucy
also had a jawbone but no teeth or other parts of the skull except
for a few patches from the top of the skull.

On the other hand, the Dikika baby’s skull is so complete that a
CT scan shows molars that had not yet erupted; hence the
estimate of about three years for its age. Inside the skull was a
sandstone cast of her brain. Its volume of 330 cc was about the
same as that of a 3-year-old chimpanzee. (Our human adult
brain volumes are in the 1050-1150 cc range.) The Dikika baby
fossil also includes a nearly complete set of ribs and shoulder
bones, a couple of complete fingers and parts of the spine as well
as leg bones and a nearly complete foot.

Even after five years, Zeresenay and his team aren’t finished yet.
They’re still carefully chipping or drilling away the sandstone
and are eagerly awaiting the exposure of a big toe. So far,
Dikika baby looks very much as we do from the waist down but
more like a gorilla from the waist up. Its arms and fingers may
still have maintained the tree climbing ability of its primate
relatives. Some experts believe that Lucy and her A. afarensis
compatriots spent some time in trees in addition to walking on
the ground. The big toe is important because chimps and gorillas
have opposable big toes permitting them to grasp things
(branches, for example). Somewhere along the line, we humans
lost our opposable toes and as you well know grasping things
with our toes is not easy.

More important from a mother’s standpoint, a baby with
opposable toes could use them to grab on to the mother while she
went about looking for food or when she had to move quickly to
avoid predators or combative colleagues. Without the opposable
toe, the babies had a difficult time hanging on and mothers had to
carry their babies. As a result, the mothers were no longer as
free to forage and probably became more dependent on others,
possibly their mates, for food and protection. There’s also
speculation that language may have evolved when a mother had
to set her baby down and then try to calm the screaming baby
with some soothing sounds. If this speculation happens to be
true, something we’ll most likely never know, then language
might have evolved as a result of a change in the big toe!

Along these lines, the Dikika baby’s fossil includes a bone that
has rarely been found in other fossils. The bone, known as the
hyoid, anchors throat muscles and is an important bone when it
comes to speech. Who knows, maybe Lucy had her own real
baby and crooned it to sleep with a primitive lullaby?

Which brings me back to the drowsy play and something my
wife and I tried that we’ve never done before – take doggy bags
from lunch into the theater (Wednesday matinee). We proved
that you could take medium-rare steak kabob and less rare calf’s
liver from Broadway Joe’s (nominally Joe Namath’s restaurant)
and eat them the next day with no apparent ill effects. Where
else but on stocksandnews.com can you get a theater review, a
bit of paleontology and a culinary tip in the same column?

Allen F. Bortrum